St. Luke's names new CEO

Kevin Nokels replaces John Strange, who retired in February

Kevin Nokels.jpeg
Kevin Nokels

Kevin Nokels will be St. Luke's next CEO and president.

"Kevin checks all the right boxes. He never asks anything from anyone he wouldn't ask of himself," St. Luke's Board Chair Jeff Borling said in an interview Tuesday.

The Duluth-based health system had been led by John Strange for the past 23 years. Strange retired in February .

Nokels, pronounced nuk-culls, grew up in Long Prairie, Minn., and comes from C HI Health Creighton University Medical Center — Bergan Mercy in Omaha, Neb., where he served as president. A graduate of Saint John's University with a Master of Business Administration from St. Cloud State, Nokels got his start in health care leadership in 1992 in marketing, planning and strategy at CHI Health/Alegent Health in Nebraska.

“I’m looking forward to having the chance to work with a great medical staff and team," Nokels said in a news release Tuesday. " I see this as an incredible opportunity to make health care even better in the region.”


The appointment comes at a pivotal time for both of Duluth's hospitals, which are pouring a combined $1 billion into their downtown campuses.

The $249 million St. Luke's project will see substantial campus upgrades over the next several years, including a $37.5 million overhaul of the emergency department.

"Kevin is going to come on at a very opportune time as we look to shepherd that project to completion and look forward to phase two and phase three," Borling said.

Nokels oversaw $225 million in construction and renovation projects as a leader at Chi Health/Alegent Health, according to the news release, and Borling said the outcomes of those projects impressed the board.

"Building buildings is one thing — it takes a skilled leader to manage those complex projects," he said. "It's not just about hitting the numbers but the patient experience."

After Strange announced he was stepping down, Cejka Executive Search was retained to find his replacement. Nokels was chosen among more than 100 initial prospects that offered the search committee "a tough choice," Borling said.

"When we went out to the market for this position we were nervous — we haven't looked for a new CEO in many years," he said. "Many aspects of Kevin's professional background appealed to the board."

St. Luke's was an easy sell for Nokels, as well.


“Beyond loving this region, what drew me to St. Luke’s is that I truly saw the mission of the patient above all else embodied in those I met,” said Nokels, whose wife, Dawn, is a physician's assistant also originally from Long Prairie. The pair have two adult daughters, Addison and Lydia.

Nokels starts Aug. 12. St. Luke's. Chief Financial Officer Eric Lohn has been serving as interim CEO since Strange's departure.

Strange had a salary of $710,000, according to the most recently available tax filings.

Related Topics: HEALTHCARE
Brooks Johnson was an enterprise/investigative reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune from 2016 to 2019.
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